Last weekend, I went to Skratch Bastid’s BBQ afternoon party at the Phoenix Hotel. It was fun, if not as decadent and raunchy (or “messy,” as my friend put it) as past bacchanals at a San Francisco hotel that encourages guests to “rock out.” Cosmo Baker spun a pleasing array of 90s and 00s chestnuts along with some vintage P-Funk. Skratch Bastid peppered his set with rhythmic scratching of the kind rarely heard since Serato and other digital setups conquered the professional DJ world. And Just Blaze’s set elicited a rousing, drunken (at least among many in the audience) singalong of the best of 00s radio rap.
In short, it was a joyful anachronism. Most of the music played were tried-and-true classics. The only contemporary rap voices I heard was a little bit of Kendrick Lamar, A Tribe Called Quest’s “We the People,” Vince Staples’ “Big Fish,” and YG’s de rigueur “FDT.” There was nothing that would surprise, upset or challenge a “real hip-hop” fan.
Skratch Bastid is part of a younger generation of hip-hop DJs keeping the spirit of turntablism alive. (I haven’t listened to his mixtapes yet.) But as entertaining as his set that afternoon was, it also illustrated why the form hasn’t evolved since the late 90s, when the Invisibl Skratch Piklz, Triple Threat and the Beat Junkies mounted a valiant stand against the lamestream’s formulaic DAT tape antics. These days, DJs with cutting-and-scratching skills seem reluctant to engage with new rap beyond obvious “conscious” folks like Kendrick. Instead, they drift into other, less culturally-fraught styles, whether it’s Jake One blending 80s boogie-funk curios, A-Trak pumping up radio hits by Lil Uzi Vert and Kanye West with EDM, or the LA beat scene blurring together grime, house and footwork. Some of it could be classified as hip-hop DJ’ing, but it’s often too diffuse to qualify as such.
I know that many of those beat scene folks fuck with rap in the 10s, too. When I saw Flying Lotus perform three years ago, he gleefully used Waka Flocka Flame “Hard in Da Paint” to pound the audience into a frenzy. But he’s a laptop wizard, and doesn’t use the kind of cutting techniques that pioneers like Q-Bert employ. Where are the jocks beat juggling the sepulchral opening tones of Future’s “Mask Off,” or chopping up Playboi Carti’s “milly rock” hook on “Magnolia”? Where are the DJs mounting a movement as aesthetically relevant as turntablism once was? If it’s out there, I haven’t heard it yet. I’m waiting, and I’m all ears.